WASHINGTON - A computer science expert criticized electronic voting systems planned for the November election as highly vulnerable and flawed, saying on Wednesday a backup paper system is the only short-term solution to avoid another disputed presidential election.
"On a spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible," Aviel D. Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, told the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "Not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy."
Other experts said electronic voting offers advantages over paper balloting, including increasing access to the blind and people who do not speak English. They contended that backing up electronic systems with paper ballots could be costly.
"We want systems that are secure but also accessible to people with disabilities," said Stephen Berger, an expert at TEM Consulting, an engineering services consulting firm.
The first public hearing by the commission came as many states consider legislation to require a paper record of every vote cast as a backup to technology they consider potentially faulty or vulnerable to attack.
About 50 million Americans this fall are expected to use the ATM-like voting machines, which states rushed to get to replace paper ballots after Florida's hanging-chad fiasco in 2000. Critics say the touchscreen machines can't be trusted because they don't leave a paper trail.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Democrat John Kerry, said Wednesday, "After what happened in Florida in 2000, making sure that there is a reliable paper trail in place to account for every vote is just common sense."
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters no printers for making receipts have been manufactured for the electronic voting machines in his state, but he suggested he is not concerned about using the machines in November.
"I'm afraid a lot of the concerns about this are really to try to create a cloud of controversy during the election to motivate people to vote and there's got to be a better way to do that," Bush said. "You can talk about issues and ideas, maybe, instead of scaring people."
To help prevent mishaps, the four-member bipartisan panel is expected to issue recommendations to state and local officials, such as urging poll workers to keep a stack of paper ballots available in case electronic machines fail to operate.
"We cannot afford to have a replay of 2000, when voting systems failed to properly record voters' intent ... and when millions of Americans questioned the outcome and legitimacy of the presidential election," said Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, who was to testify Wednesday. "Specific security measures are needed."
Machines in more than half the precincts in California's San Diego County malfunctioned during the March 2 presidential primary, and a lack of paper ballots may have disenfranchised hundreds of voters.
Congress created the commission under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which began distributing $3.9 billion to states to upgrade voting systems after the disputed 2000 election. The panel is charged with ensuring the voting process is sound, although it lacks the power to enforce any standards it sets.
The commission has said it is woefully underfunded, with only $1.2 million of its $10 million budget appropriated, prompting the commission to caution it might not have the resources to immediately forestall widespread voting problems.
Republican chairman DeForest B. Soaries Jr., a former New Jersey secretary of state named by President Bush in December to the commission, has said the panel will need $2 million more this year and the full $10 million in 2005 to fulfill its mission of restoring public faith in electronic voting.
Executives from Diebold Inc., Hart Intercivic Inc., Election Systems & Software Inc., and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. will speak Wednesday, along with California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.